In response to a lawsuit and preliminary injunction, the US Forest Service has canceled plans to log an old growth fir forest in the popular Walton Lake recreational area
On October 17th, the Forest Service canceled plans to log hundreds of large and old growth Douglas-fir and Grand fir in the Walton Lake area, the most popular recreation site on the Ochoco National Forest. In a victory for wildlife and recreationalists, this magnificent old growth fir forest around Walton Lake will not be logged this fall, and will instead continue to provide important wildlife habitat and beloved scenic views.
On August 15th, 2016, Earthrise Law Center and Attorney Jesse Buss filed litigation on behalf of the League of Wilderness Defenders/Blue Mountains Biodiversity Project (LOWD/BMBP) to challenge the “Walton Lake Restoration Project.” Although the Forest Service repeatedly told the public and the press that this project would only “thin” the beautiful old growth forest that surrounds Walton Lake, the Forest Service actually planned to remove virtually all Grand fir and Douglas-fir—including enormous old growth trees—from some of the areas around Walton Lake.
The Forest Service withdrew its plans to log in the Walton Lake area shortly after a Federal District Court Judge granted a preliminary injunction to temporarily halt the logging slated to begin on October 17th. In granting the injunction, the Court specifically found that the plaintiff was likely to prevail on at least one of its claims. In its letter announcing the withdrawal of the project, the Forest Service said it intended to conduct “additional analysis of the proposed activities under the National Environmental policy Act [NEPA].” Several of LOWD/BMBP’s legal claims were based on violations of NEPA.
For the Walton Lake project, the Forest Service attempted to comply with NEPA by using a Categorical Exclusion process, which severely limits opportunities for public comment. The Forest Service’s public notices regarding the project did not clearly explain that the Forest Service intended to remove all fir trees from some areas, including hundreds of firs over 21 inches in diameter at breast height (dbh) and numerous, enormous old growth firs. Most of the Forest Service’s press releases and public postings at the Walton Lake campground inaccurately described all of the proposed logging as “thinning.” But its internal analysis of the Project described the logging in one area as a “clearcut” and predicted that “the immediate impacts to visual resources would be extremely noticeable.” In fact the dense mixed-conifer forest that currently provides lovely views to the south and east of Walton Lake would have been radically transformed by the proposed clearcutting.
Much of the logging authorized by this Project also would have violated mandatory restrictions called the Eastside Screens, which prohibit the Forest Service from logging trees over 21 inches dbh in the Ochoco National Forest. The Forest Service attempted to misuse a narrow exception in the Eastside Screens meant to address the removal of “roadside or campground hazard trees”—damaged, diseased, or dead trees next to roads or in campgrounds that pose a legitimate threat to human health and safety. The Forest Service’s attempt to log hundreds of large and old trees away from roads or campgrounds was an unprecedented misuse of that narrow exception.
The Forest Service claimed that logging was needed to eliminate root rot that supposedly was creating a public safety problem, even though many of the targeted firs are not currently infected and are nowhere near the Walton Lake campsites or roads. Moreover, logging is known to spread root rot. The Forest Service has the ongoing ability to fell legitimate roadside and campground hazard trees; the cancellation of this project does not change that.
BMBP is a project of LOWD, and is based in eastern Oregon. BMBP is dedicated to protecting and restoring native forest and high desert ecosystems in four National Forests—the Ochoco, Umatilla, Malheur, and Deschutes—and the Prineville BLM District. Please see bluemountainsbiodiversityproject.org for more details.
Earthrise attorney Tom Buchele, and his co-counsel, Oregon City attorney and Earthrise alum Jesse Buss, filed the litigation and the motion for a preliminary injunction in the Federal District Court. Earthrise Fellow, Doug DeRoy, and Earthrise student, Tessa Chillemi, also helped brief the motion. Earthrise Law Center is an environmental law clinic based at Lewis and Clark Law School in Portland, Oregon.